Objective and psychophysical studies of infant visual development
Distortion or deprivation of vision during an early `critical' period of visual development can result in permanent visual impairment which indicates the need to identify and treat visually at-risk individuals early. A significant difficulty in this respect is that conventional, subjective methods of visual acuity determination are ineffective before approximately three years of age. In laboratory studies, infant visual function has been quantified precisely, using objective methods based on visual evoked potentials (VEP), preferential looking (PL) and optokinetic nystagmus (OKN) but clinical assessment of infant vision has presented a particular difficulty. An initial aim of this study was to evaluate the relative clinical merits of the three techniques. Clinical derivatives were devised, the OKN method proved unsuitable but the PL and VEP methods were evaluated in a pilot study. Most infants participating in the study had known ocular and/or neurological abnormalities but a few normals were included for comparison. The study suggested that the PL method was more clinically appropriate for the objective assessment of infant acuity. A study of normal visual development from birth to one year was subsequently conducted. Observations included cycloplegic refraction, ophthalmoscopy and preferential looking visual acuity assessment using horizontally and vertically oriented square wave gratings. The aims of the work were to investigate the efficiency and sensitivity of the technique and to study possible correlates of visual development. The success rate of the PL method varied with age; 87% of newborns and 98% of infants attending follow-up successfully completed at least one acuity test. Below two months monocular acuities were difficult to secure; infants were most testable around six months. The results produced were similar to published data using the acuity card procedure and slightly lower than, but comparable with acuity data derived using extended PL methods. Acuity development was not impaired in infants found to have retinal haemorrhages as newborns. A significant relationship was found between newborn binocular acuity and anisometropia but not with other refractive findings. No strong or consistent correlations between grating acuity and refraction were found for three, six or twelve months olds. Improvements in acuity and decreases in levels of hyperopia over the first week of life were suggestive of recovery from minor birth trauma. The refractive data was analysed separately to investigate the natural history of refraction in normal infants. Most newborns (80%) were hyperopic, significant astigmatism was found in 86% and significant anisometropia in 22%. No significant alteration in spherical equivalent refraction was noted between birth and three months, a significant reduction in hyperopia was evident by six months and this trend continued until one year. Observations on the astigmatic component of the refractive error revealed a rather erratic series of changes which would be worthy of further investigation since a repeat refraction study suggested difficulties in obtaining stable measurements in newborns. Astigmatism tended to decrease between birth and three months, increased significantly from three to six months and decreased significantly from six to twelve months. A constant decrease in the degree of anisometropia was evident throughout the first year. These findings have implications for the correction of infantile refractive error.